Straw for the Manger: Creating a Matthew 25 Advent season
By Sherry Blackman
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” — Matthew 25:34–36
The story of Christ’s birth speaks to us of the vulnerability of being human and the unfathomable humility of the Creator God. God, clothed with skin, a body with bones that break and a cry that pierced the night, utterly helpless, offers us a glimpse into Matthew 25 when God’s people ask, “When did we see our king hungry, thirsty or naked?”
The stable where Christ was born speaks of hunger, thirst, nakedness and being alone in the world. It reminds us of our dependence upon one another and declares our universal need for shelter and care.
Mary — tired, hungry and thirsty — gave birth among the straw and the hay used for animal bedding and fodder. Perhaps Joseph gathered clean straw to soften the feeding trough that was used to cradle the newborn child.
During this Advent season, let us actively prepare the manger for the Christ child by each day adding a piece of “straw” to his bed — an act of love carried out in his name. Let us offer a sip of water to the thirsty, swaddle the naked with holy arms, care for the sick and the sick at heart, and set the captives free from prisons of isolation, loneliness, addiction and guilt.
We can do all of these things with grace and truth and the tender gestures of our bare hands. And as we do, we become kingdom people, birthing love in the world.
This Advent, let us explore the ways that we as individuals of all ages and as faith communities can be a “touchable God,” offering one another the gift of God’s presence and living our faith through the actions we do in Christ’s name. Let us ready the manger with the straw of loving deeds and kindness.
How to use this year’s devotional
Adding your straw to the manger
By Donna Frischknecht Jackson, editor of Presbyterians Today
I’m not quite sure where the tradition of adding straw to the manger during Advent originated. I’ve asked around and researched and from what I can gather it might have come from Eastern Europe. My friends of Polish ancestry have told me that as children they would take a piece of straw and place it in a feeding trough to prepare the bed for baby Jesus. Each piece of straw represented something good that they did, so that by Christmas Eve, Jesus’ bed would be prepared with straw symbolizing acts of love and kindness.
I loved this idea so much that I introduced “straw for the manger” to the children in the first church I served. A young father with carpentry skills made me a manger, and since I was in a farming community, all I had to do was make a request from the pulpit for straw. However, I mistakenly asked for hay. The matriarch of a farm family shook her head in dismay at the former Manhattanite who was now a country pastor and shouted, in the middle of my request, that I wanted straw. Hay was the feed for animals, she explained later. Straw was the bedding.
With an ample supply of straw that was later donated, the children came forward during the Sundays of Advent and told of their good deeds. As the Sundays went by, more children would appear, with friends in tow. By the fourth Sunday of Advent, the manger bed was overflowing. It was a beautiful sight to see the children actively engaged in doing good deeds in their community. It was also a beautiful sight to see a small church filled with the laughter — and contagious passion — of children again. As I think back on that Advent season, I see a perfect example of a congregation coming to life — filled with the vitality that is one aspect of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Matthew 25 invitation. And so, I encourage you to use this devotional with children, with teens and with others outside your church family, and together seek ways to live out Matthew 25’s call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the lonely and set free the captives. Set up a manger in your church or home and add pieces of straw. If you don’t have straw, cut strips of yellow construction paper and write on them acts of kindness and place them in the manger. Don’t have a manger? Use a cardboard box or a deep bowl. The Rev. Sherry Blackman, this year’s devotional writer, shares many wonderful thoughts and ideas on how to fill the manger.
The print edition of this year’s devotional also provides space each Sunday of Advent to write down your thoughts, your hopes, your prayers and your ideas for what you can do to be Christ to others. I call this time of reflection “your pieces of straw.” You may even want to invite others to reflect with you.
No matter how you use this devotional, it’s my prayer that this season of Advent will be one in which you will spend the days reflecting on Matthew 25, and that you become mindful of ways to be Christ to others, adding straws of love and kindness not just to a manger bed, but out into this world.
About the writer
The Rev. Sherry Blackman is an award-winning journalist and poet, whose work has taken her around the globe and has appeared in dozens of publications and several books. She currently serves as the pastor of the Presbyterian Church of the Mountain, in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania. In her “free” time, she also serves as a truck stop chaplain and Pennsylvania State Police chaplain.